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Arts & Life

TWTS: Don't let "exasperate" and "exacerbate" exasperate you

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The words "exacerbate" and "exasperate" look and sound very similar. That could explain why people sometimes say "exasperate" when they mean "exacerbate," as our listner Judy Nikolai  has noticed.

"Once or twice I've even heard reporters or interviewees on NPR employ what I believe is this incorrect usage," she says.

This seems like a straight-forward case of people simply confusing two similar words. However, it's actually more complicated than that.

"Exacerbate" goes back to the 1600s and was borrowed into English from Latin. Over time, the meaning has stayed constant -- to increase the pain of something or to increase the bitterness or severity of something. It's synonymous with "aggravate." 

On the other hand, "exasperate" has had multiple meanings over its history. In the 1600s, you'll find examples where it's used to mean to make something harsher, to make a law more severe or to increase the fierceness or violence of pain or hunger.

Historically though, "exasperate" has had meanings that completely overlap with "exacerbate," as you'll see in the following examples: 

From 1677:  "Why come you thus to exasperate my despair?"

From the late 17th century: "Rubbing the sore doth tend to exasperate and inflame it." 

From 1855:  "His naturally wild and headstrong temper was exasperated by disease."

Since the 1500s, "exasperate" has also meant to irritate someone. Currently, that's one of the most common meanings. Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes this meaning but lists the other meaning, to make more severe, as obsolete. The American Heritage Dictionary provides both definitions.

So, have speakers confused "exasperate" for "exacerbate," or are they using an obsolete definition? In Modern American Usage, Brian Garner says the distinction between the two has been clear for several generations and shouldn't be confused. Merriam-Webster recommends that we be very careful in formal writing. 

Professor Anne Curzan says that's probably good advice. 

"[In formal writing] people probably will think that we didn't know to disentangle them," says Curzan. "But the historian in me says these words have been entangled for a long time, and it's not a straightforward case of confusion."  

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